Friday, December 3, 2021

Big Art, Out and About

Part of a series of shade shelters along Tampa’s Riverwalk.

Part of a series of shade shelters along Tampa’s Riverwalk.

Tara O’Neill

South Tampa is flush with public art. Flush. I’m talking bay-to-shining-bay. There’s oodles that serve physical functions: mosaic-tiled benches shaped like waves whirlpool around a tiny garden park; organic-looking steel and canvas canopies provide shade and shelter along the Riverwalk: large ones over rest areas, tiny ones over directional stations and water fountains; a shiny red “hydrant” that squirts water into a giant cartoonish dog dish (yep, it’s a water fountain for dogs); and the lights downtown do so much more than illuminate the streets, they inspire, they also change colors and shapes. Very cool.

Then there’s art aplenty designed to fulfill internal functions: the aesthetics of grace and beauty, the cunning of wit and humor, the brilliance of intelligence, the cleverness of invention, the awe of science. Art that feeds the soul. Truly, the public art in South Tampa is spectacular.

I know this because I was there recently on distraught business related to a hospitalized friend. Long periods of time left to my own devices were filled with many walks, and a few drives, that never took me far from the vicinity of Tampa General. My heart, so filled with longing, absorbed the bounty of art like a sponge. I know it was the very nature of being distraught that made me hyper-aware of the art around me.

I know this because I was there a year ago on a much more joyful excursion and didn’t notice three-quarters of what arrested my attention this trip. A year ago I was feeling young and happy and utterly absorbed in my companions and our itinerary of fun; I yearned for nothing and in my complacency missed a great deal. (Although I do remember the gargantuan steel Slinky arcing down the median strip of Bayshore Drive – delightful.)

This last trip

A brick in Tampa’s Riverwalk. PHOTOS BY TARA O’NEILL

A brick in Tampa’s Riverwalk. PHOTOS BY TARA O’NEILL

was, for obvious reasons, different. But the wonder of it all is that as my emotional thirsts rose they were almost instantly quenched by one city’s attention to artful details. A real seek-and-ye-shall-find experience. I especially appreciated the Riverwalk, which wraps along the Hillsborough River under the southern tip of the city, it’s 1.5 miles of pure soul food. I was pretty tense when I found the garden with molded concrete seats, a kinetic sculpture, and watery music subtly piping through hedges – very calming; I was frowning quite ferociously (which made people stare) when the giant dog dish and hydrant made me burst into laughter (which really made people stare); wishing for wisdom I found myself on a stone path chiseled with quotes of great inspiration.

And everywhere I went there were sculptures that celebrated love, history, discovery, struggle, triumph, wisdom and whimsy, the physical and the spiritual. I was, and still am, in awe of a community that is willing to harness the power of art for the benefit of all. What a huge benefit for the urban population and visitors alike.

I would very much like to see more art in our own public spaces… especially functional art. I mean, if we’re going to hire an engineer to construct water fountains and bus shelters and park benches on public land, can’t we hire engineers with some creativity? Or artists with engineering sensibilities? Wouldn’t it be lovely to have something interesting everywhere your eye fell?

I have a fabulous idea for bus shelters. I wonder who I should talk to.


Tara O’Neill, a lifelong, award-winning, artist has been an area resident since 1967. She holds degrees in Fine Arts and English from the University of South Florida and is currently represented by Blue Mangrove Gallery on Marco Island. Visit her at





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